FROM: U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
New York, NY
May 8, 2015
Good afternoon. We just heard a very concerning briefing from Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for the Great Lakes Region, Said Djinnit, about the situation in Burundi.
This is the third time the Council has come together just in the last month to address the need for all parties in Burundi to refrain from violence and intimidation before, during, and after elections, and to actively support the conditions for a peaceful, timely, credible, and inclusive elections process.
What we are seeing is a Burundi sliding into violent turmoil. The intensity of the violence has increased this week. Live rounds, water cannons, and arbitrary arrest have been used against protestors. We’ve now seen reports of grenade attacks.
While reports of those killed and arrested vary, we know that on May 4th at least three protestors were shot dead. On May 6th, another half dozen people were reportedly killed, and over the last three days, we have started to see more gruesome attacks against alleged members of the Imbonerakure, including a lynching and separate burning.
Amidst this increase in violence, refugee flows into Rwanda, Tanzania, and the DRC have skyrocketed to over 50,000 people. Any further violence carries with it the risk of irreversible consequences not just for Burundian citizens, but for the people of the Great Lakes region writ-large.
This violence is due to two very foreseeable and very preventable events. First, President Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a third term, which the United States has clearly stated is a violation of the Arusha Agreement. Despite warnings from multiple parts of Burundian society and the international community that such a move would lead to violence, Nkurunziza decided to move forward. He rejected, and indeed was extremely dismissive, of the possibility that his moving out in abrogation of the Arusha Agreement would generate protests and would result in violence. He ruled that out – out of hand – and now we are seeing, unfortunately, the consequence of his decisions and of his dismissiveness of these risks. Second, the government’s continued and relentless crackdown against the people’s rights to peacefully protest and freely express their views has itself increased violence. The severe restrictions placed on the media – traditional and social – have only exacerbated these problems.
While the government claims that President Nkurunziza’s third term is constitutional, and the Constitutional Court ruling this week supported that finding, we must underscore the apparent lack of judicial impartiality that led to this decision. The Vice President of Burundi’s Constitutional Court fled to safety in Rwanda this week and refused to succumb to the government’s pressure to validate President Nkurunziza’s third term.
This Vice President said judges, “were subjected to enormous pressure and even death threats,” stating that, “those opposed to a third term - violating the constitution and the Arusha Agreement - were afraid, because they were put under pressure.” “We risk our lives,” he said, “so judges had to get behind the third term and join the camp supporting it.”
We welcome the leadership being shown by the region. The foreign ministers of Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and Angola were in Burundi this week to engage all parties to seek a way out the crisis. The heads of state of the East African Community will meet next week in Dar es Salaam, where we hope the crisis in Burundi is front and center – and we have every reason to believe it will be.
We also welcome African Union Chairwoman Dlamini-Zuma’s statement yesterday that Nkurunziza should not seek a third term and that what is most important at this critical time is to ensure a peaceful environment conducive to elections.
The government of Burundi has a window to stop and reverse the outbreak of violence by agreeing to allow for peaceful protests, easing restrictions to media, respecting human rights, and preventing violence by the Imbonerakure and the security forces. To date neither President Nkurunziza nor his government has condemned the violence by the youth militia or called for restraint by the police. We urge them to do so immediately; failure to take these steps will only heighten the scale of violence and increase the risk of this turning into a regional crisis.
With that, I’m happy to take a few questions.
Reporter: Madame Ambassador, thank you. What more can the Council do on this issue, given that Russia has sort of made clear that they think it’s a constitutional issue that the Council shouldn’t get involved in. Did you raise the possibility of threatening sanctions? And, what can you tell us about these reports that the President’s security are distributing weapons throughout the country and training militia? How concerned are you by this and what do you know about it?
Ambassador Power: Okay, let me get all of this. Let me just start with the reports that you mentioned. You might recall that, now, more than six months ago, the security advisor to the prior UN mission in Burundi was expelled from Burundi because of the leak of a report alleging the massive distribution of weapons to the Imbonerakure.
Now, we hear that some of those weapons are being used. We hear of threats by the youth militia toward people who peacefully protest against President Nkurunziza’s decision to pursue a third term. These are extremely alarming reports. There’s no question that there are weapons in the hands of people who are not affiliated with the traditional security establishment—with the armed forces and with the police. And the fact that these reports are increasing, not decreasing; the fact that prior reports appear to be credible; and the fact that the government’s only response to those reports was in effect to shoot the messenger—not literally, thankfully—but to expel the BNUB security advisor and indeed to end the prior mission, which had much more of a monitoring role than the current election-related mission. These are all extremely worrying facts.
In terms of sanctions, let me just say that the United States is very carefully monitoring the situation, and we are prepared to take targeted measures, including visa bans or sanctions, against those who plan or participate in wide-spread violence of the kind that we all fear. The United Nations Security Council has threatened action, and it remains to be seen what action the Council would come together in support of.
I think for all of the disagreement perhaps here or there about the constitution, there is no disagreement about the need for the Council to do everything in its power to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control. I mean, the Council is alarmed. I don’t think there’s been a period, maybe even in the last decade, where the Council has met this many times on Burundi consecutively. So right now, we’re emphasizing support for Said Djinnit, who’s actually trying to bring the parties together and see if there’s a peaceful way out of this crisis, and I think we will get at the “what are the next steps” again if these negotiations cannot bear fruit.
Reporter: Thank you. You have been to Bangui not once, but twice. So I must ask you, in light of these horrific allegations, are you satisfied that both France and the United Nations initiated this investigation quickly enough? Made sure that the soldiers were removed from that mission quickly enough? And that all the steps towards accountability have been taken? And related, does this draw new attention to all the reforms that have been called for in the past, on how to handle sex abuse in peacekeeping?
Ambassador Power: Thank you for the question. It’s an extremely important one. The allegations are completely horrific. You know, the fact that soldiers who are entrusted with the protection of civilians, the protection of young people—if these allegations prove true, again, it is such a profound violation, not only of the dignity and physical security of individuals in their most vulnerable state, but it is a complete abrogation of trust, between those who are alleged to come as protectors and those who violate that trust and take advantage of, again, the most acute vulnerability any of us could imagine experiencing. A vulnerability that comes from being desperate for food. From being desperate for protection.
So we don’t know, again, the full facts of the case at this stage—that is the case of the allegations of sexual abuse—whether those will be borne out. They are certainly very credible and very disturbing allegations. So it is essential that those countries whose soldiers are alleged to have been involved in crimes of this magnitude act aggressively to track down the facts and to punish anybody responsible.
In terms of the UN and the member state’s handling of the issue, I think it is extremely important that an impartial investigation be done also of that, on top of investigating the allegations themselves. When allegations like this are made, and sadly, this is not the first time that peacekeepers have been accused of sexual abuse of civilians who’ve put their faith in the international community. When allegations like these are made, speed is essential, absolutely imperative, because for as long, potentially, as crimes like these are being committed, then individuals are vulnerable to the same individuals who are alleged to be carrying out the crimes.
The safety of those who are brave enough to come forward, notwithstanding having potentially been abused, the safety of those individuals, those witnesses—the confidentiality of their testimony—that’s also essential.
So there are a number of elements to the appropriate handling of cases like this, and we need this impartial investigation of the handling to be carried out swiftly. We need all individuals, both in member states themselves and within the UN organization who were involved in the handling of this, again, grave and grotesque set of allegations, to involve themselves and come forward and make everything that they know available. And, I think the investigation needs to span, again, from start to finish. Because there were a lot of different stages to this.
But we need a system here, number one, where peacekeepers are vetted appropriately before they go into the field. Number two, at the slightest hint that peacekeepers could be carrying out abuses—that needs to be reported up the chain and investigated extremely swiftly. And we, again, like everyone, are concerned about the length of time between the alleged crimes and the time at which the appropriate authorities were made aware, and the lag between the time at which the appropriate authorities took the required action.
Reporter: Follow up on that? One question? Thanks. Appreciate it. One issue that has arisen that may not even need to wait for an investigation is that the Central African Republic says that they were never told of this, and given that these were their citizens, I wonder if you—does the U.S. think that when the UN system becomes aware of charges such as these, that the host country should be told? There’s also this issue, in the UN Dispute Tribunal ruling, that the Under Secretary General of Peacekeeping was reported, and the UN didn’t seem to dispute it, to have said that the whistleblower should resign or be suspended. And I wonder, this seems like a pretty serious charge. What do you think of that? Do you think that that is appropriate? What do you think of the treatment of the whistleblower who brought it to light?
Ambassador Power: I think, on a lot of these issues, we’re all going to be better off if we allow an impartial investigation to take hold. And, I think, you raise a really, really important issue about host country involvement, and we’d want to, again, get the facts on that. Certainly, it is the case that the host country itself, of course, has the sovereign responsibility for the protection of its citizens, and so, looking at what role Central African Republic authorities played or didn’t play has to be part of this.
And then, in terms of the individual who disclosed the allegations, who worked for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, again, it’s extremely important that any individual who comes into possession of allegations of this gravity acts swiftly. It is also extremely important that victim and witness safety be a very significant, a primary consideration as well. And so again, the impartial investigation will look at the handling and how both the issue of speed and the issue of victim and witness protection—how those issues were handled.
Ambassador Power: I think on a lot of these issues we’re all going to be better off if we allow an impartial investigation to take hold. And I think you raise a really important issue on host country involvement
Looking at what role Central African Republic authorities played or didn’t play has to be part of this.
It’s extremely important that any individual who comes into possession of allegations of this gravity acts swiftly, it is also extremely important that victim ad witness safety be a very significant, a primary consideration, as well.
Reporter: Ambassador, back to Burundi: I wonder if you could talk about the way the international architecture is set up. There’s been a lot of criticism from the Burundians themselves that the international community has been very slow on this issue – the fact that we do have 50,000 refugees and when the international community has been very well aware of what was going to happen. What can you say about how the international community responds to these issues, given what we’ve seen in South Sudan and Syria today?
Ambassador Power: Well, the international community, as represented by the UN Security Council, has actually been quite aggressive in the preventive diplomacy phase. I mean, the fact that just two months ago, or whenever it was, we all traveled all the way to Burundi as a way of sending a message to President Nkurunziza about what the risks were if he went ahead in violation of the letter and the spirit of the Arusha agreement. That’s actually quite unusual. And everybody on the Security Council, just as in the broader international community, is well aware of the history in Burundi, and of course the broader region, and how quickly political disputes can get – can descend into ethnic disputes. And Arusha enshrined a social compact that has allowed Burundi to make tremendous progress. And, you know, for the sake of Burundians who suffered so much and worked so hard to reconcile, and to get to the place they have gotten to, in terms of stability, including relative political stability – for that to be endangered. Sub-regional organizations sent the message that that was imperiled; regional organizations sent that message, including Dlamini-Zuma – not just yesterday, but over the course of recent months – and the Security Council traveled all the way there to send that message. I myself have been to Burundi twice in the last year to send that message. I believe the first Cabinet member to travel to Burundi in a long time, on behalf of President Obama, in order to send that message. So it is clear things are not going well in Burundi; and all of us want to learn if there was more we could have done. But at the end of the day, President Nkurunziza has to put his people first. The international community can’t make him privilege the welfare of his people, privilege the end of violence, over his own personal desire to seek a third term. He has to make that choice. And I think the message from the international community was loud and clear, and it’s a message that he has chosen not to hear. Thank you.
Reporter: (Inaudible, off mic) Syria?
Ambassador Power: I’ll just do that real quick. I’m not going to get ahead of the diplomatic discussions, but you all know that resolution 2118 – best remembered as the resolution that dismantled Syria’s declared chemical weapons program – bans the use of chemical weapons. And you know that resolution 2209 – the chlorine resolution – makes very clear that the use of chlorine as a weapon is chemical weapons use. And we heard in the Arria session devastating reports. I believe you all met as well with the doctors who treated the victims of chlorine attacks. So we believe, and it’s clear that many Council members agree, that we have got to have a means of establishing who was carrying out these chlorine attacks. To us, the Fact Finding Mission’s report was very clear – from the OPCW – it described hundreds of witnesses with the same symptoms. Victims who died without a cut on their bodies, just because they suffocated on this gas; and witnesses who described the smell of chlorine emanating at just the moment a helicopter came and dropped a barrel bomb on a particular building; the victims themselves smelled like chlorine. There are no allegations of how chlorine could be disbursed in the manner the OPCW has described it has been disbursed absent, again, these air attacks. Everybody who has been interviewed has described a correlation between the chlorine-related deaths and the dropping of what appear to be chlorine barrel bombs from helicopters. And, as you know, only the regime has helicopters. So we believe the factual record is quite straightforward and devastating in terms of Syrian regime use. But it is, as a factual matter, true that no one in the international system is mandated to establish attribution for these attacks; and we need to fix that. So we hope that we can make progress on a resolution to ensure that there is a mechanism that will not only establish chlorine use, but establish who carried out that use.